Don't let puritans spoil progress

Don't let puritans spoil progress

A few weeks have passed since the possession and consumption of cannabis for medicinal purposes was decriminalised. Meanwhile, recreational use is "strongly discouraged", especially in public, but with a lack of clear legislation and rules in place against it, many have interpreted the regulation change that enabled it as blanket legalisation.

Dispensaries are popping up in neighbourhoods in Bangkok and across the country selling strains openly to happy customers. Ironically, the sight of such Amsterdam-style weed cafes is against Public Health Minister's Anutin Charnvirakul's vision of cannabis in Thailand, as he's often reiterated the cash crop is only meant to be a form of alternative treatment and in support of the green economy.

Regardless, it seems as if the dispensaries and cafes are here to stay. Despite what some may believe, society continues to function as normal without any disintegration into drug-fuelled chaos.

Many Thais have shown an interest in cannabis with almost half of those surveyed by YouGov saying they had used cannabis-based products in the past two years while 62% were interested in consumption in the next 12 months. But not everyone is happy with decriminalisation.

People like Sen Somchai Sawangkan disagree with the rushed manner in which the change was introduced without foresight, and has asked the cabinet to introduce emergency rules to criminalise recreational use.

Since decriminalisation, the government has been making new orders to put check-and-balance mechanisms in place. For example, a day after legalisation, the Royal College of Pediatrics issued a letter urging the banning of the sale of cannabis and cannabis-related products to anyone under 20 and pregnant women. This advice was quickly heeded, with the Royal Gazette publishing new regulations on June 17.

While some demands have been reasonable, stories have also emerged that seek to do more harm than good. In one example, four people were reported to have been admitted to hospital for "cannabis overdose". One of them, a 51-year-old, later died due to chest pain and heart failure, leading many puritans to jump to conclusions and condemn the change as premature without even waiting for an autopsy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, a fatal marijuana overdose is unlikely. While health concerns and questions about the impact of cannabis availability on society are legitimate, decades of progress should not be reversed over the fears of a few cases, especially when there are other dangerous ills out there. How long has it been since you read about someone being hospitalised for an alcohol overdose?

Thailand achieved a historic milestone with decriminalisation in a region known for its strict anti-drug laws. It was not long ago that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was waging a war on drugs, with many jailed or killed as a result. It will do no good to return to such times or adapt age-old conservative approaches.

It's time to move on and try a different method, and the decision to grant clemency to 4,300 prisoners jailed for past cannabis charges sets the right example. It eases the burden on the justice system and allows tax money to be diverted to address the care of violent offenders.

Like it or not, the policy has already opened the floodgates on recreational use, and the public and some industries such as tourism have mostly welcomed the idea. Instead of reversing the change and returning to the past, efforts should be made to educate the public on safe consumption of cannabis and plug gaps in the law where needed.

One key focus should be to provide guidance for police on how they can keep the roads safe given there is no provision against driving when high, such as similar laws on drunk driving. How can police officers determine the level of impairment of someone under the influence? How should a legal limit be established and how can officers test for it?

Similarly, guidelines need to be established on how to measure the THC content of cannabis products. Currently, it's still an offence to possess or sell cannabis extracts with THC of over 0.2% without a prescription, but the market is largely still unregulated. This introduces the risk of adulterated products flooding the market, a serious health risk.

The next no-confidence debate is set to take place in July, with the opposition aiming to focus on the government's approach towards decriminalisation. Let's hope that sense and reason prevail and there is no regression, but instead continued progress on cannabis consumption in Thailand.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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